Triskelle - Irish History - Internment

Operation Demetrius

The Special Powers Act from 1922, one of the issues fought against by the civil right movement, gave the authorities of Northern Ireland far-reaching powers for persevering the peace and maintaining order. On 9 August 1971 Faulkner activated this Act.

Earlier that year Faulkner had ordered the special branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British Military Intelligence to compose a list of people who should be interned. The British found out-of-date and incomplete files. There were, for example, no files at all concerning members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The British Intelligence deemed that the information was unreliable and advised strongly against internment. Nevertheless 342 Catholics, none of them prominent members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), were arrested immediately after the effectuation of the Special Powers Act in what was called Operation Demetrius.

The arrested men were transported to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast or to makeshift internment camps, such as the Long Kesh Detention Centre which belongs to Her Majesty's Prison Maze, where they could be kept without trial.
There are several songs in which the Crumlin Road Jail Long is the subject, for example Ireland's Fight For Freedom, Over the Wall and the Irish Republican Jail Song. Long Kesh Detention Centre is subject of the song Long Kesh.

This partial action resulted in terrible violence: 17 people were killed in the 48 hours after the internment. Amongst the slain were 10 Catholics killed by British soldiers. One of the killed Catholics was Hugh Mullan, a 38 year old priest, who was killed while saying the last rites over a dying man.
European Court of Human Rights

The methods used in the interrogations of the detainees were inhumane and perhaps the Republic of Ireland had a solid case when they brought the security forces of Northern Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights. Also in those times the European machine moved sluggish as Internment ended before the meeting of the court. Food and sleep deprivation and deliberately causing disorientation were, even in the 1970's, interrogation methods not common to use in a modern and civilised nation.

The conditions in Billy Faulkner's Little Holiday Camp Long Kesh were degrading according to a group of Westminster Members of Parliament, the Red Cross and Amnesty International. The overcrowded huts, insufficient sanitary facilities and inadequate medical care led to insurmountable health problems.
The song Men Behind the Wire is an appeal for solidarity with the detainees.

To tackle the overcrowding the HMS Maidstone, initially an emergency billet, was transformed in a prison ship. The conditions on the HMS Maidstone were horrible and the prison ship was closed immediately after the dismissal of the Stormont Government.

Just as the British Intelligence has predicted Internment was far from efficient. Six months after the effectuation of the Special Powers Act a dizzying number of 2,357 people where arrested of whom a staggering 67% (1,600 internees) was completely innocent, even by Government's standards.

John McGuffin describes in his book "Internment" some bizarre experiences from fellow-detainees. Experiences that could be humorous under less serious circumstances.

The arrest and interrogation of the 11 months (!) old son of Harry McKeown is one example. An other example is the release and re-arrest of Billy McBurney. His second Internment lasted two minutes, the shortest ever. An example of capriciousness is provided by an internee who was arrested because he had a copy of the Republican News in his pocket. Strangely the Republican News was one of the three allowed newspapers in Long Kesh.

The situation reached rock bottom at Sunday 30 January 1972 when an anti-Internment march ended in the massacre known as Bloody Sunday.

Prison Protests

What seems impossible outside the prison walls became reality in Crumlin Road Jail in May 1972: interned Loyalists and Republicans closed ranks and fought for the status of political prisoner. A political status means more privileges, such as more letters and visits and not wearing prison uniforms. Their status has been ambiguous. In the daily prison routine internees were treated as normal inmates, while appeals for parole were rejected because they were political prisoners.

The detainees protested for political status either by wearing normal clothes or by living on a blanket, meaning wearing nothing but a blanket, or the strip strike (wearing nothing at all). Other ways of protest were the hunger strike or the so-called Lewes Tactic, which is basically wrecking the jail.

Hunger strike as method to embarrass someone originates from the old Irish Brehon Law. As protest the hunger strike was tried and tested in Irish prisons, with varying successes in the Republic of Ireland, it always has failed in Northern Ireland. That is until June 1972 when, after refusing food for 35 days, several Republican and Loyalist prisoners gain more privileges in the Crumlin Road Jail. They also got accommodated in a separate wing. Whitelaw denied however the existence of something as a political status. Abolition of this Special Category Status in 1976 by the British government led to fierce protests.

Despite national and international protests and pressure the Internment continued until December 1975. Suggestions are that Internment was preserved during Direct Rule in order to enforce a truce, meaning that the detainees were in fact hostages.

During the Internment a total of 1,981 people were detained in camps. Because the majority of the detainees was Catholic (1,874 against 107 Protestants) the activation of the Special Powers Act led to a higher level of violence and more support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA).

An estimated 7,000 Northern Irish Catholics, amongst them without a doubt several members and sympathisers of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), fled to the Republic of Ireland.

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